Studio Sequoia’s transfixingly beautiful photographs belie the fact that this “vintage garden party wedding” in sunny San Diego was executed on a shoestring budget. The bride and groom, Danielle and Cuong, were both students at the time of their nuptials, and they had to make do with the meager means typically associated with the lean college years. Nevertheless, by whittling down their guest list, enlisting the help of loved ones, and focusing only on the elements that really mattered to them, they succeeded in creating a meaningful celebration that was uniquely their own. The pair, who got engaged while on a moonlit walk in the secluded cove where they had spent their earliest days together, staged their “first look” against the dramatic backdrop of Balboa Park’s historic cactus garden. The ceremony was held nearby at their favorite lunch date spot, Zoro Garden, a sunken stone grotto garden where monarch and swallowtail butterflies can be seen flitting among the brightly colored perennials and weeping fig trees. “The ceremony was extra special because we wrote our own vows,” Danielle said. “I didn’t want any of that sleep-inducing ‘dearly beloved’ stuff. I wanted it to be personal and to be ours.” Danielle’s brother recited one of the couple’s beloved poems by E. E. Cummings, and the two spiced up the unity ceremony by pouring spices together instead of bland sand. These personalized aspects of the wedding, Danielle said, “kept us focused on each other and on our marriage.”
Following the ceremony, the newlyweds and their sixty guests headed to the groom’s family home, where the backyard had been transformed into a charming reception space filled with soft, dusky shades of pink, gold, and blue. The tables were set with heirloom lace doilies, pieces borrowed from the mother of the bride’s ’50s-era Anchor Hocking collection, and vintage vases that the bride had treasure-hunted from local antique and thrift stores during a series of “secondhand expeditions.” With the love and laughter that permeated the air—and the dancing, which took place under an arched tree laden with ripening pomegranates—the evening proved to be just as romantic as the night Cuong asked Danielle to spend all of her days with him.
Q + A with Danielle
What’s your love story? How did you meet, fall in love, and get engaged?
I am always embarrassed to tell the story of how we met, but it doesn’t really matter now that we’re married! Cuong had posted an ad online out of post-breakup angst, and I happened upon it while looking for friends in San Diego, where I was moving for college. When we hung out for the first time after chatting for six months, Cuong took me to La Jolla Cove. He surprised me with a birthday gift—a silver bracelet very similar to the one I had lost that summer. We started actually dating and not just hanging out in January 2009. We went on all sorts of cute and silly dates—flying kites, going to the beach, and eating ice cream while watching the city lights. It was very much like a storybook romance. The hard part came when I spent a year abroad in France from 2010 to 2011, and we decided to stay together and endure the long distance. We didn’t see each other for a full year, but when we did, we realized that all the waiting had been worth it. Fast forward a bit to January 2012. Cuong planned our third anniversary date: dinner then a walk at La Jolla Cove. We used it as an excuse to get dressed up. Once we got down to the cove, we watched the moon set over the ocean. Cuong was waiting until midnight, but I was getting tired, so he reached into his jacket, which I was wearing at the time, and pulled out the ring. I said yes, and the rest is history!
Can you tell us a little bit about the details of your wedding and your sources of inspiration?
We planned and carried out our wedding on a college budget in the space of six months. Looking at the pictures, I still don’t believe it. When I say college budget, I mean it. Cuong was paying for his master’s program, and I was completing the last two quarters of my bachelor’s degree on my own dime without any loans. We ended up spending $7k on the whole wedding. Our honeymoon was a gift. We had two choices for the wedding date: six months or two years after our engagement, so we chose the sooner option. Of course, that meant cramming a lot into our already crammed lives, but we did it and stayed (mostly) sane.
The photography, catering, rentals, and flowers took the biggest portion of our budget, so these things were at the forefront of our planning. The rest consisted of the details, all the little things that made our day ours. Of course, having a guest list of 60 people significantly brought the cost down. We could have had a bartender and a DJ, but we passed on these. Most brides agonize over the dress, but for some reason, my “look” wasn’t the most important thing, although I really can’t complain about the outcome! I watched my fair share of Say Yes to the Dress, but my practical mindset won out. I happened to find my gorgeous dress on Craigslist, even though I had been planning to go to an off-the-rack bridal outlet just a week later. We also passed on a wedding coordinator; instead, I made a giant master spreadsheet with everything that needed to happen during the day outlined in it, and I gave everyone who wanted to help a job on that list. I asked my sister-in-law to make the cake, as she is a fantastic baker, and I trusted her with my vision.
We wanted to stay local, and many of our details reflected memories of our relationship. We had our ceremony in Balboa Park’s Zoro Garden, one of our favorite sandwich date spots. We had a staycation honeymoon at a local B&B instead of spending extra time and money on travel; we live in one of the most beautiful places in the United States, so why not!
As cliché as it sounds, I would call our wedding a “vintage garden party wedding.” From the petal pinks and rosy golds to the soft slate-blues and creams, everything had a classic romantic feel. The ceremony was in a gorgeous garden, and our reception was very much like a garden party. We achieved a vintage feel by using all the cute vintage details I could round up: the place settings, the handmade doilies for the centerpieces, old vases, an old travel trunk, an antique beaded clutch purse. All of these details were chic on the cheap (and loaded with sentimental value).
I really enjoyed tracking down the dishes we used for the reception. My mom has a fairly large collection of ’50s-era Anchor Hocking tea trays, so I started shopping around in antique shops, thrift stores, and on Craigslist, eventually finding enough trays and punch cups for the reception! During these secondhand expeditions, I found a bunch of vases (which were added to my mom’s collection after the wedding) for the centerpieces. For favors, we offered two kinds of organic loose-leaf tea in seed paper pouches. My mom wrote the name of the tea on each pouch in beautiful calligraphy.
What were your favorite or most memorable moments of the day?
One of the more memorable moments of the day came after we were finished with our first look session, when I headed over to the ceremony location with our photographer. My mom, dad, and bridesmaids were there, all dressed up. I could see our guests milling around in the garden, my husband-to-be talking with his groomsmen and the officiant. Everyone seemed so light and bright. My brothers had set everything up from the rental company, and the music was ready. My mom put my veil in my hair and gave me my bouquet. My dad gave me some Kleenex and my vows, which I had left behind at the place where I got ready. At that moment, I just felt so happy and ready to be getting married.
The way I chose to walk down the aisle was important, too. Both Cuong and I wanted our parents to be involved in the ceremony, so Cuong walked his parents down to their seats, and then the bridesmaids walked down. I had both of my parents walk me down the aisle, as they are both equally important to me, and both of them were giving me away, not just my dad. There was one part of the steps that was too narrow for the three of us, so we worked out a really neat solution. I split off and took a loop, which was parallel to the main aisle, and I saw Cuong standing there waiting for me. My heart just leapt, and on the return side of the loop, I saw all the guests beaming up at me. My parents were at the end of the path, and they looked so, so proud. To me, it symbolized how marriage splits you from your parents, but they will still always be by your side.
The ceremony was extra special because we wrote our own vows. I didn’t want any of that sleep-inducing “dearly beloved” stuff. I wanted it to be personal and to be ours. The officiant told our story and shared what marriage means to us as a couple. We then read the vows that we had written to each other. We poured spices together instead of sand. My brother recited a poem—“I carry your heart with me” by E. E. Cummings. When we exchanged rings, we threw a Toy Story reference in there. All of these things kept us focused on each other and on our marriage, not on pleasing the crowd, during our special day.
Tell us about your dress and your wedding party’s attire.
I got my pre-owned dress and veil on Craigslist for $100. My oyster-colored dress, called “Fanal,” was designed by Pronovias. I had to get it dry-cleaned and altered (let out), so it ended up costing just under $500. I just love how the color dressed up the simple cut. I really didn’t want a white dress, because all the detail and beauty gets lost when you put bright white in the summer sun. I really liked the cathedral train and the way it side bustled. It was a thousand times perfect. As for accessories, I made my necklace with rose freshwater pearls and Swarovski crystals, wore the same dangly pearls that I wore for my high school prom, and adorned my wrist with the birthday bracelet that Cuong gave me the first time we met. My purse was vintage; it was among the costume jewelry that my great-grandma left to my mom. It was perfect for my look.
For the ladies in the bridal party, I only specified color (blush pink), length, and style. (I have Pinterest boards to thank for this, as I didn’t even give them swatches.) The maid of honor got her dress through a wholesaler. My other bridesmaid got her dress from Express. My mom and I went dress shopping together when she visited me for my graduation. At Bloomingdale’s, we found a dress in the perfect cut and style for her, and it also happened to be the perfect color. She wanted to have a modern look that popped and wasn’t too matronly or frumpy, and I think she got what she wanted.
Cuong got his suit and accessories at Express. Because we were having a summer wedding, none of the guys were allowed to wear black. We wanted them to wear bright colors, but we let them wear whatever non-black suit they wanted.
What kind of advice would you offer to future brides?
The wedding planning process can be stressful when you have a million people to talk to about the details. Try to limit the “details” talk to your groom, your maid of honor, and your mom or whoever is on the same creative wavelength as you. Everyone else will try to throw in their two cents, and though the thought is nice, too many cooks will spoil the stew, not to mention drive you absolutely bonkers.
The biggest thing for me was allowing my groom to take full responsibility for designing the reception. Since we had it in Cuong’s backyard, he planned the table layouts, the time of day, the plants, the lighting and sound, and the place settings. It turned out perfectly, and he got to contribute. I feel like most brides have their grooms help out with the mundane stuff and insist on having all the control over the planning process. The bride should be worried about colors and flowers and dresses. Let your man contribute in some way. I think men shy away from the planning because they really don’t want to be the ones to disappoint their brides.
Another piece of advice I have is to stick to your roots. Whether you’ve been to fifty weddings or two, remember that the wedding you’re planning is yours. You decide what you want. If you don’t want an aisle runner, don’t get one. No flowers at the ceremony? So be it. Many of those in the wedding industry (even the “offbeat” and DIY people) will tell you about all the things you “need,” but at the end of the day, it’s you and your spouse and your marriage. As long as you make it to the other side of your wedding day married, your wedding was a success.
And lastly, in the midst of planning your wedding, you shouldn’t neglect to plan your marriage.
Photography: Studio Sequoia / Ceremony Venue: Zoro Garden in Balboa Park / Reception venue: Groom’s backyard / Flowers: L & S Event Design / Caterer: David LaPlante (friend of the photographer) / Rentals: San Diego Party Rentals / Cake: Sister-in-law, Rachel / Hair and makeup: Bride / Stationery: DIY with Of the Earth seed paper